The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, an Atlanta transplant to New England. Charlie’s mother, a young widow, re-married into an elite family and now has Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.” Feeling as if he doesn’t belong in his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at a prestigious Massachusetts prep school.
Even though he feels out of place among his high society colleagues, he finds contentment in the classroom. There he meets May, the headmaster’s young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his. The attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.
Charlie’s mother, Anita, hovers in the background. At first, she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and Abbot. She then becomes a constant reminder that his half-brother is the favored son.
Anita’s worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career—first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan—drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.
Meanwhile, May finds her first true happiness with Charlie, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends the relationship without explanation after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.
Told from the perspective of Charlie, who is, at best, an unreliable narrator, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story. The book shows promise, but relies too much on the school environment and quickly falls into predictability.
Each character holds intertwined secrets. For Charlie, it’s his feelings towards May and his resentment of his brother, who charms everyone he meets.
For Nick, it is that, despite his brilliance and charm, he only feels alive in the chaos of a Third World country. For Anita, it is the truth of her first marriage and its impact on her relationship with Charlie.
For May, it is longing to be loved by her own mother, while pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection. Each of these secrets has a ripple effect, changing the relationships among the characters in severe and life-altering ways. In the midst of all this is a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.
Lecraw’s writing is engaging enough, but the story never completely finds its stride. The primary plot twist, while dramatic, comes off as contrived.
The novel starts at a brisk pace and ends with a bittersweet twist, but the middle drags until readers may want to give up. I would encourage sticking it out, although skipping a few sections in the middle would have no effect on understanding the story as a whole.
The characters have potential to be interesting, but that potential is never quite realized as LeCraw fails to develop them fully. Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment, stemming from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess.
Nick has no complexity at all. Like Charlie, he struggles with abandonment as his own father drinks himself to death. These feelings, however, are coming from an egotistical, self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.
Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with Anita, whose presence becomes necessary only when used for a not-entirely-shocking plot twist.
May is the most likeable and complex, but I wish LeCraw had explored her more. She can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, yet she continually pushes herself towards both.
This subplot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting more. Its impact on the main characters leads to a too-neat resolution, as if LeCraw got to the end and realized she had forgotten to finish that part.
If you’re looking for a strong book about family and long-kept secrets, you would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler. Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw attempts but never actually reaches. ★ ★ ★
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at email@example.com.